The future of Martial Arts: Where we came from and where we’re goingBy
Before I get to the part where this post is about the future of martial arts, let me explain what triggered it.
I spent yesterday visiting Bruges and Gent with family and an American girl visiting Belgium for a few days. We had a grand old time (you can see some pics on my Facebook Page) and went home tired but we all had fun. Just as we were driving from Bruges to Gent, I get a text message: I urgently need to scan in a copy of my ID and mail it to somebody for a big-ass business project I’m involved in.
It’s Saturday afternoon, I’m in a car, I don’t have access to my scanner or my PC. I also don’t know if any Internet cafe’s still exist in the area (think they all went belly up a few years ago). So basically, I’m screwed. Either I go home and get this done on my home computer, or I need to find another solution…
Samsung to the rescue!
I pondered it for five seconds and then proceeded as follows:
- My brother-in-law has a Samsung Galaxy S, which is a pretty good phone with a good camera in it. He also has a cheap, 2Gb a month contract with his provider.
- I took out my ID, placed it on the back of a bike standing there in the street in Gent and we made pics of it with his phone.
- I logged on to my webmail and uploaded the pictures.
- I mailed them on and received confirmation they got through OK about 10 min. later.
The whole process took perhaps 4 minutes: taking the pics, logging into my email account and then sending everything.
Here’s the the thing:
- Today, I didn’t have to break off my day trip and continued to have a great time. It took a wee bit of effort to make sure I didn’t mess up typing the email address but other than that, I hardly had to focus on this task.
- Five years ago, it would have been both difficult and very expensive to use this solution. Cell-phones didn’t have great cameras back then and uploading data was extremely expensive here (still is too expensive compared to other countries but it’s manageable now)
- Ten years ago, it would have been technically impossible.
- Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t even have thought about trying this solution. I’d have gone home to find a copy machine and then driven over to hand deliver the document. Which wouldn’t have been possible either because I didn’t have a cellphone back then so I never would have gotten the text message in the first place…
My point is: life changed drastically in just a couple years time. Compared to twenty years ago, the change is gigantic.
This made me thing about the time when I started my martial arts training, what happened before that and where we’re going to end up. In other words, you’re in for some reminiscing and crystal ball gazing. You’ll have to wade through a bunch of my thoughts before we get there, so please try to hang in there until the end.
Martial arts from the past
When I started my martial arts training, I was 13-years old. That was back in 1985 for those of you who are curious. It was the time of Sho Koshugi and Ninja movies. The whole ninja craze had hit the Western world and we all dressed in black, wore black masks and jumped out of trees with wooden swords. (Don’t laugh, today’s MMA-loving teens wear spandex shorts and fondle each other on the ground. I think my generation did OK compared to that… ;-))
The 13-year old kids form the ’70′s wore black pants and no shirts. They sucked in their gut to look ripped and then hopped from one foot to the other while making weird, high pitched sounds as they launched fast, snapping punches and kicks at each other. Oh yeah, they also made their own nun-chucks and swung them around a lot. That’s how it was back then…
If you go even further down the road in time, you’ll find similar examples for Karate and Judo. These two martial arts were discovered in the ’60s, ’50s and even earlier. They spoke to the imagination of the youngsters of those times and I remember reading the comics, magazine adverts and seeing movies and TV series (Remember the Capt. Kirk fight with Mr. Sulu on Star trek?) from those days: they all featured Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and Karate. Poorly done, but it was in there.
I’m giving this history lesson only to point out a pattern: martial arts came to the Western world in fads. There’s always been one wave after another of a “new” art hitting the spotlight. We’ll get back to that in a bit.
The second wave that always came along with each fad was a bunch of “teachers” cropping up, claiming they had actually been training in this new art for years (yeah, right…) in an effort to make a quick buck. Let’s talk about that for a bit.
Martial arts pirates and the biggest one of them all, Bruce Lee.
From what I learned from my teachers, read from others and in historical research and experienced myself, cross-training in different Asian martial arts was not the norm in the past. Some people did indeed teach several arts at the same time but they often were compatible, supplemental, sub-sets or similar. To put it another way: unlike today, you didn’t find all that many teachers who’s curriculum included both Wing Chun and Ju Jitsu.
This was probably so because traveling the globe wasn’t as easy a hundred years ago than it is now. So there was less of a possibility to cross-train in arts from another country or continent. It was easier to travel twenty, fifty or a couple hundred miles to learn a different style from another teacher. But that meant you only learned something that was similar in flavor (gross exaggeration, but bear with me) to your own style simply because of the geographical proximity. Mixing up Greco-Roman wrestling with muay Thai and BJJ was pretty much unheard of 50-60 years ago.
For the anal-retentive crowd: I’m speaking in broad terms to make a point. I’m sure there are exceptions to this and I’ll go on record to say Donn F. Draeger is the one I like best in this category. But that’s precisely the point I’m making; they are the exceptions, not the rule.
This all changed when Bruce Lee hit the silver screen. He’s credited as being the biggest innovator in the martial arts world and to a degree, I think this is true. He spoke up about much that was wrong with traditional martial arts though I think he missed the mark on a lot of things (but that’s for another time). Regardless, he took a critical view at his art (Wing Chun) and did something everybody should give him credit for: he tried to fix what he thought was wrong. All of us today owe him a debt of gratitude for doing just that and creating Jeet Kune Do in the process.
As far as we can tell, Bruce “borrowed” both techniques and concepts he liked from many other arts (Western boxing, Savate, muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, etc.) and incorporated them into his own style. I’m no JKD expert but from what I’ve seen, he didn’t do a bad job. That said, he still “stole” from other arts so like Marc said: he’s a Pirate.
Mind you, in my opinion he’s not 100% a pirate the way Marc explains it because to the best of my knowledge, Bruce Lee did acknowledge that he took some of his stuff from other arts. Also, I don’t think he did it to make a quick buck or rip people off. Everything I’ve learned of him shows he trained his ass off to actually master everything he borrowed from elsewhere, which is a far cry from what the real pirates do. But I think we can safely say he put “cross-training” as we know it on the map.
Contrast Lee’s training ethic and study of other arts with all the grappling masters who popped up after UFC1 in 1993…
I remember reading the MA magazines back then and seeing a bunch of these masters show up in the issues after UFC1. All of a sudden, you saw guys who’d only been showing punching and kicking techniques for years teaching all sorts of groundwork. When you re-read these magazines now, you’ll definitely see the lack of quality instruction demonstrated by many of them (not all). A little bit later, a bunch of them (and loads others nobody had ever heard of) put out books and videos about ground fighting and grappling. Again, the quality was often so-so.
These are the real pirates.
Keelhaul the evildoers!
Before you sentence these pirates to death, some nuances:
I don’t really mind as much that people “steal” from other arts. As long as you train hard to master whatever you take and try to do so with understanding of the original art, I’m fine with it. I think many of those who do this are misinformed and “steal” things they don’t understand completely but on the whole, it’s not really a big deal to me. Nor do I mind cross-training. Hell, I do it myself and enjoy it very much.
I do have an issue with those who don’t give credit and claim ideas they steal as their own. That’s just wrong, though sometimes this happens automatically: I try to give credit whenever I can but sometimes, I forget where I read or saw something. Also, nobody reads your stuff or watches your instructional videos when all you write/say is which source gave you which technique/concept. So in a way it’s unavoidable to sometimes present stuff as your own. But there’s a lot of middle ground between never giving credit on purpose and accidentally forgetting it from time to time or leaving it out for practical purposes.
Pirates don’t care about any of this, that’s the difference.
Back on track…
The last few decades saw this trend of cross-training take off and nowadays, pretty much every martial artist thinks this is just the way it always was. Like I said before, it didn’t use to be this way and in many parts of the world it still isn’t. But in most Western countries, it’s now considered normal to practice several styles simultaneously.
This increase in cross-training has accelerated the evolution of martial arts, which is the next piece of the puzzle I need to put on the table.
The evolution of Martial Arts
In a documentary, Dan Inosanto answered a question about why JKD had so many defenses against side kicks (or something along those lines, it’s been a while…) Mr. Inosanto replied that people back then (1970′s) made extensive use of the side kick. So it only made sense to incorporate defensive measures against it in JKD. But nowadays, you don’t see this anymore. It’s not like the side kick is gone but it sure isn’t as present anymore than it was back then. In other words, martial arts evolved…
The same thing applies to combat sports. Remember kickboxing in the late 70′s, early ’80′s? I do. I was there. Here’s what happened:
American kickboxing (no leg kicks) had been the predominant format for a while and most champions were, oh surprise, Americans. In the mean time, Dutch and French fighters were going to Japan and Thailand to learn that version of kickboxing, including leg kicks, knees, elbows and clinching. They got their asses kicked but took the lessons from their defeat to heart and always came back stronger. People like Jan Plas and Tom Harrinck were the real trailblazers back then.
Inevitably, American champions wanted a piece of this action so they started competing in Europe, thinking they could get some easy victories against those clumsy looking fighters. The results? Barring a couple exceptions, they got their butts whipped good almost every single time. Why? Because they thought leg kicks were stupid and didn’t think they’d have a problem handling them (This is where I remind you once again that the differences are just as important as the similarities…). The Dutch fighters proved them wrong time and time again. This is a matter of record, by the way. I’m not just bashing US fighters for the fun of it. You can look it up if you don’t believe me.
Most fights looked like this one between Dutch fighter Andre Brilleman and America’s Howard Jackson:
Jackson was by no means a crappy fighter, on the contrary. In American kickboxing, he was a champion. But fighting with leg kicks wasn’t his thing: look at how many of those he blocks in this fight… Back then, kickboxers thought muay Thai and its leg kicks was crap because it didn’t look like the way they fought. Today though, nobody disputes the supremacy of muay Thai in the ring. The worst part: Brilleman isn’t even showing that much skill in this fight but he still manhandles Jackson.
The same thing happened with BJJ and all other styles that tried to compete in the Octagon: the Gracie’s came in and cleaned house with their ground-based Jiu-Jitsu back in the early days of the UFC. But today, every MMA fighter has a ground game and the Gracies are no longer to be found at the top of the UFC. In other words, MMA evolved too, just like the martial arts did with the side kick. Just look at how people fought in UFC1 and how they are competing now. The difference is just as big as my cellphone comparison from 5 and 10 years ago I wrote about in the beginning.
Which brings everything full circle and makes it time to wrap things up.
The future of Martial Arts
All the previous was a set up for the following predictions I’ll make today. No idea if they’ll come true or not, nor do I really care. These are just some idle thoughts on a Sunday afternoon. Don’t read anything more into it or the joke’s on you.
Prediction 1: No more fads like we had in the past.
Thanks to the growth of the Internet and particularly Youtube, I think we’ve pretty much “discovered” all the martial arts out there. I’m sure there are still a few left that have been kept “within the family” but in general, I doubt they will be radically different from what is already known. I don’t think we’ll see those huge upsets like Muay Thai demolishing kickboxing or the Gracie’s beating up everybody else. Nor do I think we’ll see brand new arts show up like they did in the past. Not withstanding claims from those who teach the martial arts of the ancient Egyptians (hehehe.) or Celts (haaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahaaaaa.). A friend of mine would call them necromancers, but that’s also a story for another time.
Prediction 2: Mixed Martial Arts merges with Self Defense.
This is a two-part prediction:
- MMA will be seen as a valid form of self defense training simply because of it’s dominance in the martial arts world. If enough people believe something, it becomes accepted as truth. Doesn’t mean it’s actually true but it will be seen as such. I’ve harped on about this topic more than enough so I’ll refrain from commenting on it here.
- Because of the sheer numbers of MMA practitioners and its competitive/testosterone-driven nature, more and more people will actually go out and use MMA for self defense and be successful with it. This will reinforce what I said in the previous bullet and creates a vicious cycle which will blur the lines between MMA as a sport and as a self defense system even more.
Prediction 3: MMA becomes traditional.
Say what? Yup, MMA will become no different from other martial arts. Instead of only being focused on competing in the Octagon, MMA will adapt its curriculum to incorporate the realities of self defense, weapons, multiple opponents and so on. To a degree, this has already happened. But it will go further than this. To grow beyond the confines of sports-fighting, MMA will the add elements from the traditional styles it once ridiculed (I was there 20 years ago during UFC1, I remember…): forms, partner work, drills, mental and spiritual training, etiquette, etc. Once again, to a degree, this is already so but it’ll be more common place in the future and go much further. Case in point (from about 5 years ago):
This also sets up my next prediction:
Prediction 4: Traditional martial arts return with a vengeance.
The more MMA turns into a traditional art by becoming more than sports-fighting, the more it’ll borrow from traditional arts. Simply because that’s the best place to borrow from. Why? Traditional martial arts have hundreds of years of experience behind them. UFC-type MMA has only twenty. Remember the comparison between cellphones from twenty years ago and today… If only to incorporate the weapons aspect, MMA will have to go look what traditional weapon styles are doing. I think they’ll use a lot more than just the weapons part but it’s too long a discussion to add to this post. The overall point I’m making is that MMA coaches and practitioners who want to grow will look deeper at the sources they started with and go beyond the modern styles towards the more traditional ones for information and inspiration.
Prediction 5: The future of Martial Arts is bright.
All this leads me to believe we’re in for an interesting ride in the martial arts world. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing MMA or traditional arts, the lines between both will blur and we’ll see a rise in skilled teachers and practitioners. Simply because of the wealth of information available via the Internet, books, videos, on-line training, etc. I’m betting we’ll later look back at the 2000-2020 era as a renaissance for the martial arts. Some more thoughts:
- There will be lots of crap at first. Traditional arts are easy to misinterpret. They’re also harsh mistresses who don’t give up the goods right away: they make you wait for years until much of what really makes them awesome actually becomes a reality for you. The tendency of MMA practitioners and coaches to quickly swipe everything they see will be counterproductive at first. But it’ll get better after a while.
- Different styles of MMA will evolve more clearly. This is already a fact: GSP is not a brawler like Wanderlei Silva is. So he doesn’t train that way either. The stylistic differences will become more pronounced with the addition of material from traditional martial arts. Another aspect is that certain MMA styles will focus more on the self defense part than the competitive part: both will be present in the curriculum but the emphasis will not be equal for both parts. The competitive part will be used as a step-up towards the self-defense part. Which is exactly the way I view the Sanda training I teach and why I created my Combat Sanshou system: as a bridge between traditional arts and full-contact sports-fighting. It’s also why I made videos about using the heavy bag and on being a padman: These pieces of equipment can be used for both sports-fighting and self defense. But you need to know how to differentiate between the two, which is what I tried to show in those videos.
- Pirates are in for rough waters. Pirates will have a hard time in the future, for several reasons.
- It’s going to be hard to claim you’re an MMA world champion because the standard response today is “Youtube or it didn’t happen!” In other words, you’ll have to prove what you claim. Saying it was an underground tournament won’t cut it anymore. This stuff happened in the ’80s with muay Thai (and before that with other arts) but that was before the Internet, 24 hour sports channels, everybody having a camera in their cellphone and so on.
- It’ll also be difficult to claim you invented something because of the wealth of videos and books out there. Students will much more easily know when a teacher is lying. So Pirates will have to be smarter about it and I have no doubt they will find ways. But it’ll be more difficult than twenty years ago.
- Modern students are less starstruck by martial arts than they were twenty years ago. Because of their presence in the media, martial arts have lost a lot of their mystery and occult appeal. This makes it even harder for Pirates to dupe students because the latter are more rational and critical to begin with.
This turned out to be much longer than I had anticipated but I had to put all the pieces of the puzzle on the table first. Otherwise, without the context, my predictions wouldn’t have made much sense.
Thanks for sticking with me until the end. As always, I look forward to the comments and feedback.